H/T Pat Nurse for the American Conservative’s Britain Abolishes Itself, by Spiked! editor Brendan O’Neill
What’s going on here? In the absence of either revolutionary or serious reform-based movements in the 21st-century UK, what on earth is driving this itchy desire amongst politicians and other leaders to turn their backs on tradition and constantly meddle in ancient institutions?
I think George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was on to something when in February he referred to the coalition government’s plans to institutionalize same-sex marriage as “cultural vandalism.” That’s the best description we have of the weird allergy to traditionalism that afflicts the modern British elite.
Both the right and the left get it spectacularly wrong when they try to explain institutional overhaul in modern Britain. The right fantasizes that it is all the work of a tiny cabal of “cultural Marxists,” ignoring the role played by their own political bedfellows in the abandonment of tradition. And the left excitably claims that all these big shifts—especially the destruction of the News of the World and the overhaul of marriage to include same-sex couples—are wonderful, revolt-like moments, which they played a part in bringing about, like modern-day Martin Luther Kings. The right’s self-denial and the left’s self-flattery blind them to what is new and weird about institutional decay today.
The British right frequently ventures into conspiracy-theory territory when it tries to explain the crisis of traditionalism. So Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail columnist and author of The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle Over God, Truth and Power, claims with a straight face that the usurpers of Britain’s core institutions and values are “the far Left,” who are “attacking us from within.” Apparently these “cultural Marxists” decided some time in the 1960s to conquer and colonize Western institutions—especially universities and the media—and Phillips says they have been remarkably successful, becoming a “collective fifth column, turning all the core values of society upside down and inside out.”
This has been the main refrain of the political right since the 1960s, in which they externalize their own failure to uphold traditionalism, to defend institutions and standards, by inventing a fairytale about an army of lefty agitators taking over society. Here the weakness of the right, its moral and political discombobulation, its alienation from its own traditions, is written out of the story in favor of blowing out of all proportion the bogeyman of cultural Marxism.
No one on the right ever stops to ask why, even if it were true that far leftists had invaded the institutions, they managed to do so with such ease. Where were the gatekeepers? Where were the guardians of traditionalism? The cultural Marxism conspiracy theory doesn’t add up, as can be seen in modern Britain: it is Cameron, a Conservative, who is denuding marriage of its ancient meaning; it was Murdoch, a right-winger, who folded the 168-year-old News of the World; it is the Windsors, even Elizabeth herself, who are inviting PR men to make them over, to make them “relevant.” These institutions weren’t dented or destroyed by cliques of super-clever leftists but by their own internal and profound crises of moral legitimacy.
Of course, it doesn’t mention the vandalisation of the traditional pub culture with smoking bans. But it’s all the same thing.
I think O’Neill does a pretty good demolition job on the notion that cultural Marxists have been colonising the institutions. Marxism is, after all, a pretty old and dog-eared ideology.
I suspect that it’s more that new, post-Marxist ideologies have emerged over the past 60 years or so – like environmentalism – which have been attractive to both Left and Right. It’s attractive to the Left because it fingers capitalism as the cause of all pollution. But it’s attractive to the Right because it idealises a rural way of life. Environmentalism is both radical and conservative. So it’s won converts from both Left and Right.
It’s the same with anti-smoking, which might be regarded as a form of environmentalism. Smokers aren’t left-wing or right-wing. And probably antismokers aren’t either. So that’s something that maybe is attractive to both left and right.
Above all, environmentalism is a vague, woolly ideology whose tenets have never been set out clearly, and which can therefore be all things to everybody.
It’s also something of a fad. It remains (I suppose) a fashionable thing to be ‘environmentally aware’ (whatever that means), and if you’re a politician with your finger on the cultural pulse, you’ll want to be seen to be fashionable. Particularly if you’re David Cameron, who is, as far as I can see, a dedicated follower of every fashion available. He’s a pro-European, anti-smoking environmentalist. And he’s pro-European, and anti-smoking, and environmentalist, not because he’s ever thought in any serious or principled way about any of these things, but because they’re the fashionable thing to be. It’s what everybody’s wearing, and so he’s wearing it too.
And if you’re going to stay in with the in-crowd, you have to learn to ruthlessly dump last year’s fashion accessories the moment they become unfashionable. And if the traditional, smoky pub has become unfashionable, you must turn on it ruthlessly. Same with traditional old-fashioned men-and-women marriages. And the monarchy. When people follow fashion, they automatically become enemies of tradition – because the latest fashion is almost by definition always ‘new’, ‘up to the minute’ and therefore not ‘old’, ‘traditional’, or ‘tried and tested’.
People like David Cameron (and Nick Clegg) are political dandies. They’re primarily concerned with their image, with how people see them. They have no principles. They just want to stay in with the in-crowd, whoever the in-crowd happens to be. The environmental in-crowd. The anti-smoking in-crowd. The European in-crowd.
One might say that our modern tyranny is simply the tyranny of fashion. Only it’s fashion with the force of law behind it. It’s not just that it’s now totally passé to smoke tobacco: it’s now more or less completely illegal too. Laws like this are no different from making mini-skirts (or maxi-skirts) illegal. Or flared trousers. Or cravats.
It’s perhaps why all these laws are so arbitrary and irrational. It’s because fashion is never rational. There isn’t any reason why trousers should be tight one year, and baggy the next. Or women’s skirts be long or short or filled with hoops. Or men’s facial hair be shorn off or grown into long beards or handlebar moustaches. People do these things to be different, and show people that they’re a bit modern and daring. It defeats the purpose of fashion to make its dictates into formal laws. It also defeats the purpose of law.
“We are upholding the values of the open society,” said Deputy PM Clegg. What is really going on here is that members of the elite who feel increasingly estranged from their forebears, from the architects of tradition and custom in Britain, have little compunction about jettisoning those traditions, casually brushing them aside to make a public display of their own “openness” and “relevance.” It is the elevation of public-relations needs over the gains and creations of history.
He’s upholding no such values. Because he hasn’t got any values. PR is all about image, and how things look.
These are shallow people, obsessed with appearances. And they are all about to be swept away.